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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Jacobson: U.S. Priorities in Latin America (VIDEO)
Roberta Jacobson, Assistant US Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, discusses US policy in Latin America, Venezuela's detention of Leopoldo Lopez and others as well as Venezuela's potential UN Security Council seat, the plight of child immigrants to the US, assistance from Latin America with UN peacekeeping -- including troops from Mexico -- and against ISIS/ISIL, Colombia's negotiations with the FARC and the presence of Cuba at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama.

By Roberta Jacobson
Assistant US Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

One of the things that I wanted to start out with is I think as you’ve seen from this particular UN General Assembly, there were a series of extremely high profile global events, right. The President stayed from Tuesday to Thursday, which is a pretty long time for a U.S. President to stay in New York at the General Assembly because there were so many major global meetings, whether you’re talking about the Climate Summit or his presiding over the Security Council to talk about foreign fighters after the Secretary led the Security Council in discussion of Iraq the Friday before, or conversations that were being held in our Global Counterterrorism Forum, or the meeting that was held by the Secretary-General on Ebola, or even today’s Washington-based conversation on global health security which will talk much more about Ebola, but also a broader conversation about health security worldwide.

Every one of those – and I actually should not fail to mention the indigenous peoples conversation and movement on that issue early in the week – every one of those conversations not only involved but really had a fairly prominent role for countries and leaders in this hemisphere.

And I don’t think that’s always what we think of when we think of these crises, but it’s very much true. And I think we really need to remember that, whether it is GRULAC members of the Security Council involved in those discussions or the mobilization of every country in the world to work on Ebola, whether it is sending assistance to Africa to help fight Ebola or readying themselves and their own countries to be sure that they’re vigilant at home.

Obviously, the questions of indigenous peoples and climate is one in which this hemisphere has really taken a lead and, in fact, is feeling effects of climate change as you look at small island states in the Caribbean, or you look at COP, which will be held in Lima in December, the Conference of Parties latest round, or Mexico, which was the first developing country to commit to targets a couple of years back.

So I think what sometimes gets lost in the tick-tock or the count of how many meetings have been held at high levels on a bilateral level is the engagement of Western Hemisphere countries on every one of these global issues and interaction with the President, with the Vice President, with the Secretary of State.

Today, for example, the Vice President will be holding an event on peacekeeping operations, because what we see globally is an increase in demand for peacekeeping operations and a real need for more countries to step up not only to provide peacekeeping forces, but also, frankly, to share in the burden of the cost.

And you will see the Western Hemisphere represented in that event, including countries that have not necessarily participated before. You all heard President Pena Nieto in his speech in front of the General Assembly talk really for the first time publicly about moving towards peacekeeping operations for Mexico. So I just want to make sure that I talk about at the top the very real engagement with us and with the world community of countries in this hemisphere.

Obviously, also seeing Ambassador John Ashe or President John Ashe stepping down as President of the General Assembly from the Caribbean. So we had a series of meetings at different levels. The Secretary met with Central American foreign ministers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as well as under secretaries from Mexico to talk about the issue of unaccompanied children, which we’ve been discussing on a regular basis since, obviously, earlier in the spring.

But to follow up on that conversation and really take it further to talk about next steps, as we have seen those numbers decline between June and August, I think everybody recognizes that although some of the decline may be attributable – and it’s really too early to say – to some of the activities we undertook, whether public relations campaigns to outline the dangers of this and the truth about whether or not people would be eligible for immigration adjustment in the United States, or the efforts that have been made against smugglers who are exploiting children and families in those countries, whether it’s seasonal, is really unclear.
But we do know that the numbers are down markedly, and we want to make sure that we use this period of time when those numbers may have gone down to ensure that we’re really getting at some of these root causes, that we’re focusing on how we can work even better together. And so the Secretary had an excellent conversation with the foreign ministers and with the Mexican under secretaries, and the foreign ministers did present the United States with a plan, which you may have heard about, which we will be discussing further with them.

Finally, I want to say that on some of the issues that have been on the – sort of the highest headlines these days, issues of ISIL or ISIS -- I do want to say that I think people find that extremely distant from countries in this hemisphere.

Happily, things like the extremely erroneous report of ISIL plots on our border or moving towards El Paso were just that. They were erroneous. But the fact of the matter is cooperation with countries in this hemisphere, especially those on our borders, is fundamental to part of our efforts to combat that threat. Threats from terrorist groups, be they ISIL or others, our cooperation has steadily increased in this hemisphere on that kind of counterterrorism effort.

But I also want to highlight that the issue of foreign fighters is not something completely foreign to this hemisphere. We know that we all have more we can do to combat that issue whether it’s in the United States or whether it’s in other countries of the hemisphere.

It is not unheard of. It is not unknown, and we need to continue to focus on that issue, as well as the financing issue as part of this comprehensive effort that the United States is making. So just to underscore, again as I said, that the top issues of the day very much engage the senior leadership of the United States Government with senior leaders in this hemisphere.
So let me stop there and start questions.

QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you very much for doing this briefing, and I wish you a prompt recovery. I wanted to ask you two questions on two different countries. First one is President Cristina Kirchner from Argentina made some critics on U.S. policy at the Security Council, and there’s this issue of the Argentina’s litigation against investors from the United States, that U.S. court might declare the country in contempt on Monday. So I was hoping you could give me an assessment of where is the bilateral relationship between the United States and Argentina today after all these events.

The second one is about Mexico. What is the impact for Mexico’s position in global stage of Pena Nieto’s decision of participating in peacekeeping operations? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay, thanks. I think – let me take the Argentina question first. Certainly, I’m not going to comment on the litigation, but I think on the situation in the bilateral relationship we remain interested and engaged i areas of bilateral cooperation where we can move forward. Obviously, this is a very tough issue for Argentina, and we are hoping that it can be resolved in a way that Argentina can return to the international financial community, that Argentina can begin to grow and be productive again.

Argentina is obviously a very rich country in resources, and we think that having Argentina be back as a full member of the international financial community is good for Argentina and the relationship with all of the countries of the world.

So obviously, we hope that that will be the end result at some point. But I think in terms of the bilateral relationship, we want to try and engage in a positive way with Argentina whether that is on energy cooperation where we have had good cooperation; continuing to try and work on nonproliferation issues where Argentina has been an ally; or on things like combating terrorism ,where Argentina has particular obvious experience, unfortunately.

It is a tough period right now. But we continue to hope that we can have a positive relationship and we don’t believe that this is an issue between our two governments; it is an issue for the courts to decide and it should not be one that should be affecting the bilateral relationship.

On the Mexican case, I think obviously we welcome President Pena Nieto’s announcement. We believe that Mexico can contribute a great deal to international peacekeeping efforts, but we also respect the fact that Mexico has a process that it needs to go through in deciding exactly how and when they will participate in those operations, as the President laid out. So we look forward to that process and to welcoming Mexico to operations of UN peacekeeping when and where they deem it appropriate. But we think they have a great deal to offer.

QUESTION: Begin translation of Spanish - [inaudible] ... international relations and certainly Leopoldo Lopez and his arrest and we would also like to know more about the agreements that are being worked on with Central American countries, and because you mentioned Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, with regard to the situation of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States, and finally if you could make a little comment about foreign terrorists in Spanish.


QUESTION: Basically to tell us what you mentioned in the press conference on foreign terrorists, just a little in Spanish.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, first, the President mentioned many cases in his speech. Those cases were important as symbols, as examples, where we want to see an open, transparent, expedient judicial process, and a legal process where people have all the rights they deserve in international law and the guarantees that national or international systems have, and we have had concerns in the case of Leopoldo López, and we have said several times that we want to ensure that he has a fair judicial process, and we still have concerns. That was the reason why the President mentioned that case. But that does not mean we have no concerns in other cases in Venezuela and we still have these concerns and as part of the United Nations and the OAS [Venezuela] has responsibilities under these international treaties and commitments of those organizations.
Also in the case of the meeting and institutions with the countries of Central America, that is a process with them to deepen efforts to combat, especially in combating the crime of organized criminal groups that are exploiting not only these children but also families, because we have to remember that it is the families who are paying these criminal groups to take their children to the United States and it is a human tragedy, we have to emphasize and I want to stress also, I'll do it in English too, that it is a human tragedy fundamentally. And they are using the tragedy, the poverty, of those persons, or violence in several places in Central America, to earn money and enrich themselves with this path to the United States, a very dangerous path for children.

Finally, in the United States they cannot benefit from laws, such as DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] for children who were brought to the United States as children, as little ones, under 16 years of age. The [laws] were not [passed] for that type of person who just entered. It has a date fixed by law. It really is a tragedy that these criminal groups are exploiting these people, and all the governments in the region and we and Mexico together have to fight this scourge. And I think we've demonstrated that we can work together during the crisis, and now we have to deepen cooperation, not only in terms of the crisis but also the roots of the problems, because we cannot forget these are the reasons why they come. If we do not want to repeat this crisis, we need to continue working. In the end, we do have to fight terrorist groups anywhere in the world, although luckily we don’t have these groups in the Western Hemisphere, we do have to watch out and be vigilant in ensuring that they are not using the region nor banking systems, nor are they perhaps allowing foreign fighters to go to battles or places in the Middle East. So there is a role, a role for all countries, all governments, citizens of all countries in the hemisphere. Thank you. End Spanish Translation.

And let me just underscore in English what I said which really didn’t come out in my opening remarks on the unaccompanied children issue. The Secretary and his counterparts underscored, and we continue to underscore, this is a human tragedy. It is not just a policy and a political and an economic problem. And we have to keep that in mind. These are children and these are families.

MODERATOR: We’ll go now to Washington. Sonia Schott.



QUESTION: How are you? Sonia Schott with Diario las Americas. Since you mentioned Leopoldo Lopez, I would like to know if this – can we consider the era of the U.S. wanting to improve dialogue with the Venezuelan Government is over, since President Obama back the opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez?

The second one is also related, is – what specific role do you have in mind for Latin America? And I would like to know, did you ask Colombia, in order to place something specific to fight ISIS or to help the U.S. fight ISIS in some ways? I don't know. And on the other hand, what happened to the countries who are not that close to the U.S. in the region? Are you afraid that ISIS could see a window of opportunity there? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thanks, Sonia. Let me start out by saying when the President mentions cases, as he did with that of Leopoldo Lopez, in any of these cases, the President is talking about upholding basic standards of human rights and due process. He is not and never has been making a political statement of support for a political agenda. So it is not accurate to say he is backing Leopoldo Lopez as an opposition leader. I would not criticize Leopoldo Lopez – nor would the President – as an opposition leader, under no circumstances. But we surely would support, and continue to, Leopoldo Lopez’ or the two opposition mayors’ who are still in prison or any other Venezuelan citizen’s right to peaceful protest, and that is what the President is talking about. He’s not endorsing a political agenda. He is endorsing freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, the right to peaceful protest, the right to transparent due process if there is a criminal or a judicial process, the right to have witnesses on your behalf in your trial. This is what the President is talking about. He’s talking about a system of judicial and democratic process that should be upheld, and that, I think, is crucial.

So to set this up as the era of wanting an improved relationship with Venezuela and having chosen a particular opposition leader to back would be a misinterpretation of the President’s words. We have always said and will continue to say that we strongly believe that every Venezuelan citizen should have the right to those freedoms as I’ve just outlined, be they from the government side or the opposition side, and that is what we are supporting.

We obviously have conversations with the Venezuela Government. We continue to have those conversations on practical matters. We do not see eye to eye on many issues. But we would continue to hope that we might have an improved relationship with the Venezuelan Government, as we’ve said. That is difficult at times, and we will continue, as we have told the Venezuelan Government, to speak out on issues of principle when we believe that’s necessary.
The last question you said was about the foreign fighters, I think, and whether or not --

QUESTION: ISIS and the (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: So I think, basically, what the President and the Secretary in their meetings with leaders from this part of the world are asking is exactly the same as they are asking of other governments and leaders around the world, which is support for the comprehensive approach to the fight against ISIL, which is – and I think this is one of the things we have to be a little careful of – obviously, the media focuses on who may be supporting the fight in airpower. But we have to remind ourselves that that is part of a comprehensive approach that includes the fight against foreign fighters, the fight against financial resources going to ISIS or ISIL, the humanitarian assistance that’s necessary for the millions who are fleeing their homes as a result of ISIL. All of those are part of the fight against ISIL, and in some of those areas there is clearly a role for all governments of the world, including those in this hemisphere. So that is what he is asking of all countries, including allies and folks we may not be as close to in this hemisphere.

Thank you. Lucia.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. I wanted to ask you about the Summit of the Americas. Panama – oh, sorry. I’m Lucia Leal with EFE. The vice president of Panama recently traveled to Cuba and stated Panama’s intention to invite them to the summit. I wanted to know if the United States is still opposed to Cuba attending.

And also, Mexico and France have argued in favor of limiting the power of veto in the United Nations Security Council in some instances. I wanted to know what’s the U.S. position on that. Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay. On the Summit of the Americas, I think we’ve been pretty clear in our position on the summit, which is that obviously Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit. I think the invitations in a formal sense have not yet been made, but we obviously have seen the same commentary that you have.

And the fact of the matter is we have said from the start that we look forward to a summit that can include a democratic Cuba at the table. We also have said that the summit process, ever since Quebec in 2001, has made a commitment to democracy, and we think that’s an important part of the summit process. But the decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries. And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made.

On the question of the UN Security Council, I had not heard those comments that you referred to by Mexico, but I think you can probably understand that the United States would probably not support a reduction or a restriction in its veto power in the Security Council. But it’s not something that I had actually heard, so I can’t really reflect on those specific comments.

MS. STAVROPOULOS: One more question in New York and then go to D.C.

PARTICIPANT: Oh, one here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Silvia Ayuso with El Pais newspaper. I have a couple of (inaudible) on what you’ve been talking. On the Summit of the Americas, one thing is what Panama might do, but in case Panama finally invites everybody, is there a chance that the U.S. might refuse going? Would there be a possibility that the U.S. would wait – if Cuba goes, would the U.S. not go?

On ISIL and the fight for – I mean the – what everybody can do and to help, are there concrete things that the U.S. might ask? I mean, like you said there’s, like, financial part or this – is there – it’s already being talked about something concrete that Latin American countries might do. And there’s also the issue that some countries have a very good relationship with Bashar Assad. I mean, President Maduro the other day on his speech mentioned that it was him who had led the fight against those terrorists. So is there any problem with that or might that be an advantage that there is a way to communicate with the Assad regime?

And the last (inaudible) question with the migrations – Central American migration plans, is there any money on the table? Because the Latin Americans had asked for some money, and the U.S., when the Congress didn’t approve the plans of the President, I mean, there was this $300 million that have disappeared of the conversation. Could that be picked up somehow again?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: On the first one, again, I think you won’t be surprised to hear me say that we’re really not going to answer hypotheticals in the future yet. Obviously, the Summit of the Americas is in April and that’s not a situation that we can answer, although I think we have made clear that we believe the summit process is committed to democratic governance and we think that the governments that are sitting at that table ought to be committed to the summit principles, which include democratic governance. And therefore that’s our position at this point. Obviously, we have a position on Cuba which does not at this point see them as upholding those principles.

On ISIL, I think – your comment about those who have communication with Syria, I think, or with President Assad, is interesting because it’s very clear that there are some countries that still have a relationship with or communication with President Assad. I don’t think – I don’t really think that’s the issue right now.
Unfortunately, I think the way in which some of the commentary has been couched has been in support of President Assad.

That is not, obviously, the position of the United States. There are, obviously, and will be increasingly concrete things, I think, that the United States will know about how one can go about attacking, whether it’s information about foreign fighters or financial links. And that’s the kind of conversations that will be held in diplomatic circles, and not things that will be discussed in public.

But I think the more that we are pursuing this, the greater the information becomes and the more those conversations will be able to be specific. But I think it is pretty clear as the United States engages with its allies the kinds of things that we hope they will be doing, as well as by example the things that the United States is doing in terms of financial systems and how we’re going about working together to ensure that foreign fighters don’t have access to either the battlefield or the ability to go to other places to threaten other countries.

MODERATOR: Let’s go now to Washington. Oh.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Oh, your last question was on the unaccompanied children.

MODERATOR: One moment.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I would just say there is money on the table, and you said it at the end of your question, which is there’s $300 million in a supplemental that the President sought from Congress, and whether or not the Congress has acted, that is still very much the President’s request. He believes that’s critically important as a part of the supplemental for us to be able to attack those root causes. In the absence of congressional action, we will do what we can to find funds, to increase our commitment and the ability to do what we can. We have already increased funds significantly to aid in return, repatriation of citizens from Central America and reintegration. But there’s no doubt that we need more, which is why the President sought those 300 million.
MODERATOR: Please go ahead now with your question from Washington.

QUESTION: Good morning, Madam Jacobson. Martha Avila with RCN TV Colombia. What’s your opinion about President Santos’s statement on Cuba? This week in New York, he said that the U.S. must stop the economic embargo because it has failed. What is your opinion about that? And it is possible that U.S. stop the embargo?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I guess what I would say is that we have always had, will always have, the utmost respect for President Santos. He is obviously a very close ally, and we will continue to admire, respect, and support him in so much of what he does in Colombia, and really in the world, as an example. This is one of those subjects on which we disagree. And obviously, we do not believe that he’s correct in this in terms of changing the policy at this moment, but I would also say – and I think we all have heard this – the President was very clear, President Obama was very clear recently when he talked about in Miami being creative in our Cuba policy. There are things that can be done within the executive power, as the President has done – changing travel regulations, changing remittance regulations. I think that some of the things that have been done in terms of purposeful travel to engage the Cuban people by the American people have had a profound impact in civil society on Cubans. And so I think the President is in fact made a commitment to trying to ensure that the Cuban people are not the ones who are hurt by American policy. But this is an area in which the President and President Santos may not see 100 percent eye-to-eye.

MS. STAVROPOULOS: We have time for just one more question.

QUESTION: Hi. Mario from Record TV from Brazil. Wednesday, President Dilma at the G8, she made some critics about the offensive against ISIS. So I would like to know if the U.S. has asked Brazil specifically any kind of support for the operations and if you can comment on what Brazil has said.

And on a separate topic, there was this issue that U.S. might not ask tourist visa for Brazilians coming to visit the U.S. a few years ago, and how that’s going.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: The visa waiver. Sure. On the first question, I can’t tell you that there has been a specific conversation with Brazil about could you please do X and Y. The truth of the matter is that during this incredibly busy week, there have been some conversations that were programmed to happen, and some conversations that have happened in hallways, and some conversations that have happened at major luncheons that Ban Ki-moon held or other global events. And so a lot of these conversations are taking place on the margins of other meetings. So I can’t be absolutely certain of whether Minister Figueiredo or others have had conversations with our officials, Secretary Kerry and others. What I can tell you is that the conversations about every country being able to do something in this fight are certainly going on, and so whether or not there have been specific asks of Brazil, which I don’t know and I’m not sure there have been, certainly we are hopeful that every country can contribute.

And a country as large and important as Brazil, I think, definitely does have a role to play here and can be helpful and supportive, and we hope they would be, again, in the areas such as humanitarian relief, where Brazil has played an important role in many other conflicts, and foreign fighters and financial areas. So we’re still hopeful on that.

On your second question, remind me where you were.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) to have tourist visa (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Right, on the Visa Waiver Program, I didn’t exactly prepare for that one today so I can’t tell you that I know exactly where we are, except that we continue to have a commitment to work with Brazil on this issue. We have a consular dialogue with Brazil. And we will continue to work with the Brazilian Government. The Brazilian Government continues to work towards meeting all of the requirements of our law, because they are stipulated by law, they’re not a discretionary matter, when we can get to a Visa Waiver Program. And we’re optimistic that at some point in the future, we can get there.

We, as I think people know, want to encourage as many Brazilians to come visit the United States as we can. We are moving ahead on opening new consulates in Brazil. We have increased the number of consular officers who can adjudicate the demand for visas in Brazil as quickly as we can to meet that demand. We’ve driven down the amount of time Brazilians have to wait for a visa from something that was unacceptably long numbers of weeks to now just a couple of days. And we’ll continue to make it as easy as possible, hopefully someday ending in no visas at all, but – we’re not there yet, but we’re continuing to work on that.

MS. STAVROPOULOS: Assistant Secretary, you’ve been very generous with your time. We have a few more questions, but I know you have a very tight schedule as well.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I probably can do one more if that’s okay, just one.

MS. STAVROPOULOS: Okay. We have time for one more question. The gentleman in the back has been very patient.


QUESTION: Thank you, hi.


QUESTION: Yes, Edwin Giraldo Ruiz with Caracol Radio from Colombia. Another question regarding Colombia: President Santos said this week that he supports the idea of Venezuela becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council. Obviously, the United States doesn’t like this idea. What is your opinion on this statement of President Santos?ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think you just answered your own question. We have – I think we’ve been also pretty clear about this one that on the Security Council, we think the most important thing is that members of the Security Council be countries and leaders who take very seriously and implement and live by the principles, the commitments, the treaties, the rules and regulations, if you will, of the United Nations, the international agreements and its underlying principles.

And so the requirements, if you will, for what we believe are good Security Council members are not sort of Country A versus Country B. They’re a type of criteria that is more general than that, and to us, means abiding by those principles, living them, upholding them, and being a responsible, committed member of the Security Council in behavior. So that’s what we look for in Security Council membership, and we’ve made that clear going forward. So we’ll have to see what happens moving forward, but we have expressed that view of the type of member we like to see in the Council.

Roberta S. Jacobson was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs on March 30, 2012. She was the Acting Assistant Secretary since July 18, 2011. Jacobson holds a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (1986) and a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University.

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